Ask anyone why they chose to live in Hell’s Kitchen, and right up there in their response, alongside the neighborhood vibe and the Midtown location, will be the food options. On any given day, we can choose from Thai to Turkish, Mexican to Greek, American, Ethiopian, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Dominican, farm to table, gourmet pizza, and dollar slice cuisine.
But the survival of the industry – and the belly of the neighborhood – is looking precarious. In a nationwide survey by the James Beard Foundation last week, only one in five restaurant owners were confident they could stay in business until the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.
The situation is even more desperate when, with restaurants now 100% dependent on delivery customers, apps like Uber Eats, Eat24, and Caviar are able to carve off as much as a third of their revenue (Seamless and its parent company Grubhub announced they were deferring commission fees for impacted independent restaurants, but not cancelling them out).
“When these apps started, they pretty much invented food delivery by the internet,” says Robert Guarino, CEO of 5 Napkin Burger, Nizza, and Marseille, all in the Film Center on 9th Avenue. “So they were filling a real need and a real service. Restaurants barely had websites at that time.”
However, over the years, they’ve gained so much marketing power that, while many restaurants now have their own, much more profitable, delivery solutions, customers are pretty much hooked on the apps.
“Grubhub is great from the customer’s perspective,” says Robert. “It’s easy, there’s a lot of restaurants there, your credit card’s stored. But it comes with real challenges for the restaurant.
The numbers go something like this: say you’re ordering a $30 entrée. The item might cost the restaurant $9, leaving them $21 left to pay their rent and to pay their employees and other expenses. “But if that order gets placed through Grubhub,” says Robert, “we’re paying 30% to Grubhub, 30% for the food, and all of a sudden we only have $12 left to pay rent and employees. So from a gross profit percentage, it’s massive.”
“I’m fighting for $80 and I can’t pay my $12,000 rent.” Sally Chironis, Rice n Beans
And, when a customer orders through Grubhub or Seamless, they’re a customer of the app, not the restaurant. “If you’re ordering once a week for a year and we screw up the order, it’s great for us to know how much you like us and we have to go above and beyond to make sure that you’re happy – but we don’t really get that opportunity with apps.”
“Much like every other restaurateur, we’re very dependent upon the various delivery services,” says Jordan Hadani, co-owner of Rustic Table, on W42nd St – 10th/11th Ave. “It makes sense. You’re hungry, you don’t really know what you want. Seamless offers so many choices, whereas the chances of you thinking of ordering specifically from Rustic Table are slim.”
Pre-COVID-19, the lines outside Rustic Table every weekend for brunch were legendary. Now, as with all restaurants, he is entirely dependent on the take out/delivery crowd.
Throw in the added heartache of customers scamming restaurants for a refund, and the frustration is tangible. Sally Chironis couldn’t believe her eyes when Grubhub refunded $80 to a new customer of Rice n Beans, on 9th Ave – 50th/51st last week. It took a personal call from the disgruntled chef to the customer – “He’s like, ‘Hey, bro, please tell me what’s wrong with your order because it’s really important for us to know.’ But he hung up on him – and calls from Sally to Grubhub for the refund to eventually be reversed.
“Oh my God.” she says. “It’s like, I’m fighting for $80 and I can’t pay my $12,000 rent. But I’m trying to stay open and keep it going.
“It breaks my heart that Rice n Beans has been around since 1981. I used to be a client when I was GM at Le Bernardin. I would sneak out and go to Rice n Beans because I grew up eating that three times a day.”
Then, in 2010, after having two children, she bought the place from the previous owner. “That was like her baby. She was like, ‘Sally, if you promise to take care of it, I’ll sell it to you.’”
She fears for the future of her own restaurant, and that of the whole neighborhood. “What happens to all these people? What happens, especially in Hell’s Kitchen, in Chinatown? What happens? It’s going to be empty, it’s going to be a ghost town.”
“People are looking for ways to support restaurants because, at the end of the day, you want the places in your neighborhood to be there and to survive,” says Robert. “We all want to get back to life again, together. People are offering to sell gift cards, and that’s obviously very helpful.
“But a small thing you can do is take the extra minute or two to check a restaurant’s website, see if they have their own ordering solution, and if they do, use that because that’s a real financial benefit to the restaurant.
“And, because we know who our customers are, we can send offers, we can send emails with specials, we can do tailored offers. So with 5 Napkin, we’re sending an email at least a couple of times a week with nightly specials. So we’ll do a $5 margarita or we’ll do matzo ball soup or things like that, at discounted prices.
“The most straightforward answer would be to order from our website, because that would mean someone really wants to support us.” Jordan Hadani, Rustic Table
“It’s an easy way to support restaurants, but also to develop more of a relationship – the same kind of relationship you’d have with a restaurant if you went in once a week.”
“The most straightforward, textbook answer would be to order from our website,” agrees Jordan, “because that would mean someone really wants to support us.” He’s offering a 20% promo for the foreseeable future, he says. “Because, ultimately, what makes more sense to us is to benefit the client, rather than have a third party benefit from the order.”
Ordering direct from the restaurant and picking up your dinner is an even better way of ensuring no third party is shaving off their cut. “Take-out is a great option, especially now,” says Robert. “If you want to get out of the house for a few minutes and just take a walk, pick it up, walk back, why not?”
5 Napkin Burger delivers between 5pm and 9pm every evening
Rustic Table delivers 7.30am to 3pm daily
Rice n Beans delivers 11.30am-9pm Tuesday though Sunday
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